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What the #AddMaleAuthorGate Brouhaha Says about Women and Leadership

Elana Centor

In early May 2015 a twitterstorm erupted when scientist Fiona Ingleby shared a rejection from the scientific journal PLOS ONE. In sending the rejection to Ingleby and her co-author evolutionary biologist Megan Head, the anonymous reviewer suggested their manuscript would be strengthened if they added one or two male biologists as active coauthors.

The response was explosive, ironic and very funny. (ADD PICs)

In response to the controversy, the publication fired the reviewer and editor and said it has sent the manuscript to a new editor for a re-review. Stay tuned.

While the publication gets an A for its crisis management, the real crisis is that the reviewer is not the exception to the rule – gender bias is pervasive throughout our culture and it is the key reason that seemingly outstanding women professionals seem to stall at midlevel positions.

What makes gender bias so difficult to address is unlike so many issues, it does not fall into the category of “I’ll know it when I see it”. In fact, that’s the problem – gender bias is often invisible to the offender and the offended.

Take the experiment where business school students were given a case study about a venture capitalist. The students were divided into two groups. The first group read about a male venture capitalist. The second, female. Every other detail was exactly the same.

However, the students’ response to the two venture capitalists were vastly different.

“… when the students thought the venture capitalist was a woman they found her to be less genuine, humble, and kind and more power-hungry, self-promoting, and disingenuous. And the more assertive a student found the female venture capitalist to be, the more they rejected her.”

What’s behind this difference in perception? Scientists say implicit biases are at the heart of the problem. According to the experts, an implicit bias aka implicit social cognition, refers to “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decision making in an unconscious manner.”

Implicit biases are very frustrating. Self-reflection won’t give an individual access to them. And, implicit biases are so deeply rooted in our psyche that they are often at odds with our declared beliefs or even stands we take on social issues.

Project Implicit was founded in 1998 and is a collaborative research project between scientists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington. Over two million people have taken their online test on implicit biases based on race, gender, age and sexual preference.

The tests take about five minutes. My race test showed that I have a slight bias in favor of Caucasians. My gender test indicates that I am gender neutral in association with career and family. As part of the test they ask a lot of questions about your family. My mother was an entrepreneur and worked outside of the home. In providing the findings of my non gender bias, the report indicated the researchers are currently investigating whether people who had a mother working outside the have different implicit associations about gender and career than people who had a stay-at-home moms.

Understanding the power of implicit biases explains a lot. for women who are constantly being told they need to network like men, negotiate like men, respond to job opportunities like men, have the confidence of men. Turns out, women can learn to do all those things and implicit biases will still be there creating an almost impenetrable barrier to greater success.

The good news is that implicit biases can be altered. The first step is awareness that the implicit bias exists. And, there are now tools that can help determine whether corporate messaging has inherently biased language. One of those tools is Textio – a software that’s like a spellchecker for gender bias.

“Some of the tweaks are head-scratchingly tiny. Swapping out “exceptional” for “extraordinary” is statistically proven to attract more female applicants. (But while you’re at it, you should also insert “validated” instead of “proven.”)

Another pointer: Having too many listed bullet points often turns women candidates away.”

The more people are aware of their own implicit biases, the easier it is to recognize when decisions are being based on these biases. For women interested in leadership, recognizing and understanding implicit biases is the starting point for developing a personal leadership action plan.

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Elana Centor

Elana Centor

Since 2013, Elana Centor has partnered with TrainSmart in three key areas: training, business development, and writing. As a trainer, Elana often teaches TrainSmart’s flagship workshop: Train-the-Trainer. She also heads our Minneapolis office and as a writer provides support on everything from marketing and website content. A former journalist, Elana has previously served as a business editor at BlogHer and worked as a freelance writer for Chicago Tribune and Marketplace on NPR.